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Opponents of FC Barcelona, here is your New Year’s Resolution

January 4, 2011

Barcelona have shuffled their pack in 2010, starting to prefer to Messi to play centrally rather than in the inside right role. Not formed in the archetypal central forward role, his pee-wee frame would perhaps lead some central defenders preferring to battle against the Lilliputian Argentinian.

Defenders may not be straining their Achilles whilst leaping against a monolithic striker but they have to deal with a completely different threat and recently played teams are yet sufficiently dampen Barcelona’s attacking prowess.

Real Madrid and Espanyol offered us a clear illustration on how not to defend against Barcelona with Messi as the centrepiece, both surrendering five goals in the process of defeat.

There are clear similarities between the way José Mourinho and the delightfully named Mauricio Pochettino organised their defence; they defended high up the pitch and looked to narrow the spaces in front of their defence.

Espanyol's high-line

Real Madrid's high-line

Let’s not prevaricate here, such a defensive strategy does not work when Messi plays as a ‘false 9’. He makes the role his own as he potters about the pitch, dropping to such depth that he sometimes looks to pick the ball up from defence.

So what does this mean for central defenders? Well, it means they are often left with nothing to do, left standing around kicking their heels. I would proposition here that instead of enjoying the fact that neither of them have anybody to directly mark that the centre-backs actually feel extremely uncomfortable at the thought of this – it means that they have to become fully aware of their movement and the space around them.

Pepe and Carvalho were often left looking bewildered as they had no one to mark

Messi dropping deep gives the nimblest Argentinean apart from this scantily clad one [NSFW] the opportunity to turn and pass into the acres of space behind the defence, which is where Pedro and David Villa will often be found. The centre-backs do not help themselves here as they often find themselves following Messi’s movement deep, creating a poor defensive line that is easier to penetrate with a piercing through-ball.

The pass leading to the fourth goal

Espanyol decided to allow one of their centre-backs, Juan Forlin, follow Messi, even when he went to go pick up the ball from the defence. This left a situation where the other centre-back was left isolate without help from his full-backs, as they were concentrating on the movements of Villa and Pedro.

Forlin was nominated as the unlucky fellow to track Messi if he dropped deep

Against Real Madrid, Ángel di María was instructed to follow Pedro’s movement, possibly to aid Marcelo who is not the best defensively. This allowed Dani Alves to maraud up and down the right wing as the space was available to do so. This turned the conventional back-four into a back-five which allowed Barcelona to dominate the middle of the park. Barcelona were therefore able to start moves in midfield comfortably and completely dominate the match. This was all down to Mourinho worrying about Pedro scurrying behind their defence.

Madrid's backline regularly consisted of five players


Hércules CF had great success in frustrating Barcelona by dropping deep and restricting the space behind them and came out winners in their game early in the season.  Levante UD went to the Camp Nou on the 2nd of January and set-up in a similar way and largely frustrated Barcelona but somewhat unluckily left with nothing.  So here’s a New Year’s resolution for all sides pipped against the Catalonian giants – play deep and make Barcelona play in front of you, with a bit of luck, you may come away with something.

26 Comments leave one →
  1. January 4, 2011 11:41 am

    Superb piece Tim, I’d like to think it was inspired by a drunken night in a King’s Cross Travelodge.

    Since Levante tried to stay deep and despite a valliant effort eventually failed. Is there a way to stop Barcelona right now? Did Levante fair better because of Messi’s absence, Villa didn’t drop as deep?

    Wonderful work as usual.

    • January 4, 2011 6:24 pm

      First Andrew, I adore that picture of you.

      What’s the best way to stop Barcelona right now? I think it is dropping deeper and stay narrow, but this is obviously very hard to implement over 90 minutes.

      Yeah, Levante did find it easier because of Messi’s absence but Barcelona eventually managed to work their way through the defensive-line – it was quite a valiant performance from Levante.

  2. January 4, 2011 12:14 pm

    A high line is always suicide if you play against Barcelona, doesn’t matter if you press, hold position, close down or narrow the midfield. With Xavi’s chip passes, Messi’s one-twos, Alves’ crosses, Iniesta’s dribbles etc. it’s child’s play for them.

    I love that Argentine dancing show!

  3. Francesc permalink
    January 4, 2011 2:35 pm

    Surely, defending deep against Barcelona isn’t a novelty. In fact, it’s what most teams do, especially at the Camp Nou. Most of them end up losing. The Hercules and Levante example is not necessarily a good one, for many reasons. Levante looked their most dangerous in the last 15 minutes of the game, when they attacked more, and compromised their defense, when they pressed and forced V aldes to kick it long and forced many set pieces. Hercules, on the other hand, had a perfect performance against a team with no preseason. Barcelona passed slowly and made the tactical mistake of playing wingers too wide (see Guardiola’s press conference on the following game against Panathinaikos). Furthermore, if you take that Hercules game and have it replayed many times, Hercules would lose most of them, as you need to have a flawless defensive performance. It’s an accident. You can hope the accident happens, but the odds are against you. Instead, Espanyol’s strategy is much more succesful. In recent years they get good results against Barcelona. And Madrid’s problem wasn’t necessarily the high line, but the fact that at tthe same time they played a high line, the midfield didn’t pressure the Barcelona playr with they ball so they could pass easy through balls. So I’d suggest the complete opposite to what you’re saying, namely that teams take the game to Barcelona’s half, that they pressure the ball, keep a high line, and deny Barcelona the ball. And you’ll find that the worst games Barcelona has had in recent years have been precisely those games (vs Stuttgart, Inter, Espanyol away, but also Villareal and Sevilla in the Camp Nou). Its a lot harder to execute that plan in the Camp Nou, and you risk losing 5-0, but the odds of winning are greater.

    • January 4, 2011 5:22 pm

      “Its a lot harder to execute that plan in the Camp Nou, and you risk losing 5-0, but the odds of winning are greater.”

      That’s true, but should the objective of Barcelona’s opponents always be to win?. IMO the odds of picking up points (rather than wins) are greatest with a deep defensive line and quick wing-based counterattacks. In other words, you’re 3+ times more likely to get a draw with a deep defensive line than a win with a high pressing game (IMO).

      • Aguilera permalink
        January 4, 2011 5:33 pm

        I think that trying to get a 0-0 against Barça is not a chance. You must try to score in order to make them feel a little nervous. If you just sit back, that’s not going to happen, they’re really patient, their patience may be their greatest virtue.
        Atlético de Madrid won many games against recent Barça teams (home, not away) by relentlessly attacking Barça with two wingers and two strikers.

    • akupureevil permalink
      January 5, 2011 12:00 pm

      u r right. high def. line is always as a result of trying to put pressure on midfield players.but it could also have been an attempt to suffocate messi of space. bytheway y do people make a fuss when messi plays false 9? he doesnt bring anything new to it! his falce 9 is like totti, rooney and all others, even cr7

  4. Aguilera permalink
    January 4, 2011 5:20 pm

    Nice piece but you have to remember that against Hércules, Messi didn’t play the false 9 role but his former inverted right winger one. In my opinion, sit back against Barça is a chance as dangerous as pressing high. With Xavi, Iniesta, Busquets and Messi in good shape there’s nothing to be done against Barça.

  5. Shawn permalink
    January 4, 2011 5:50 pm

    so why do teams still play a high defensive line when they know it’s going to be one hell of a riot by barcelona? adventure? manager’s attacking philosophy?

  6. January 4, 2011 5:56 pm

    Great piece and you would have thought that many more teams would have learned by now that to play against possession football against teams as talented as Barcarole that sitting deep and defending strong would be the best way. Inter seemed to make this popular and that spilled into the World Cup were many sides looked to frustrate. It was just a pity that few teams attacked in any way and quality won out in the end and patient Spain win.

    Levante looked good before the conceded and Dani Alves release on the wing was what was key in this game. That’s the problem with such a defensive outlook. Go behind you need to start and attack but they still seemed to fair better then many other sides against Barcarole this season

    Pep I think knows that deep defensive sides looking to setup a bus are the biggest threat to his football. But as Levante found out if you can’t stop them that way all because serious that we consider that this side could be unstoppable.

  7. Rajesh permalink
    January 4, 2011 6:01 pm

    It will also be worth citing the example of the Copenhagen-Barcelona match where FCK enjoyed almost equal possession for sometime atleast. It was a truly courageous performance by the Danish side. They took the initiative, broke down the build ups, pressed relentlessly and with a better attack, they would have won the match. In a way, it was a complete reverse of the Inter approach in the CL semifinal. Inter had the best defensive organization and they could afford to play that way, but for other teams, I think the Copenhagen way is the best. The same approach was used by the Dutch in the World cup finals although to an unbearable extent.

    To me, breaking down their passes and build up play in the midfield and attacking from the wide players will reap rich dividends against barcelona.

  8. ruffneckc permalink
    January 4, 2011 7:13 pm

    Great article. IMO, I think you have to catch Barca on a bad day – tired, like last year’s first leg against Inter in CL (they drove b/c ash cloud) or sick. If they are all fit (esp, Messi, Xavi, Pedro, Iniesta and Alves), your chances of winning are slim.

    If you stay deep and compact, they will one-two around your defense, get free kicks and punish any lapse in the 90 minutes. Their 1st touch, passing and dribbling ability means, it’s almost impossible. Basically, you have to create and take every chance you get and hope they misfire.

  9. January 4, 2011 8:08 pm

    Your recommendations against Barça’s style of play are likely the most effective, and they have generally tended to turn matches into low scoring slugging affairs. It’s not pretty football, but effective. Or is it? The match against Levante didn’t even have Messi on the pitch and saw several first team players absent, in fact. FCB’s play was a little on the dullish side as well, yet the result saw Barça through with three points.

    Last season, one could say that most teams did employ this tactic of a deep 8 to 10 players in the box against the blaugrana, but the only match that came out a rousing success was the first leg of the CL knockout with Inter. And, for that match one could blame the loss on the use of Ibra instead of Bojan or Pedro.

    The problem with a deep defensive attack against Barcelona is if they score early, or first. At that point you’re up a creek without a paddle, an entrenched formation that suddenly has to attack–against Barça. At least if you try and press them from the midfield on, you are in far better position to attack quickly and often. The key is to press and press hard, something RM patently didn’t do at Nou Camp.

    If you want to play Barça effectively, you need to be as fit as FCB are, and press just as heavily as they do. Nobody presses like Barcelona (except maybe the Chilean national team). That is the difference.

  10. pungimaar permalink
    January 4, 2011 8:59 pm

    same old shit…

  11. January 4, 2011 9:15 pm

    Nice post (and finally someone willing to write about the glories of the false nine).

    When Arsenal played Barcelona and were battered in the first half, many, including Jens Lehmann I recall, recommended Wenger’s side push up to squeeze the space. Never mind Barca were doing the same thus rendering Arsenal out of the game, his advice too text book. Against the false nine, which is a fairly new tactic in mainstream terms, it was difficult for anyone to find a solution.

    The best option seems to play deep but keep your forwards high up the pitch thus creating an open match in the middle. Inter did that last season in the 3-1 win by breaking quickly while Atletico always keep two up and play with Simao and Reyes.

    Villarreal, under Pellegrini had great success against Barcelona by playing deep but the amazing thing was, they pressed up the pitch and still played passing football. An example of their success can be shown here although this match was under Ernesto Valverde.

    Pep Guardiola: “In the game, we were unable to score a decisive second goal. We struggled to get past Villarreal’s first line of pressure in the pitch and that made the match an end to end affair.”

    Teams like Barcelona have realised, that if opponents defend deep against you, it is better to make space in front of them than to drag them out rather than push them further back as a target man or an orthodox striker would usually do. Bolton had trouble keeping their line against Arsenal and found, with Chamakh constantly dropping off, they were forced to push up as all they were marking was space. It’s a conundrum that many have failed to answer.

  12. January 4, 2011 10:00 pm

    I guess it’s different when Barcelona play at home and when they are away – even those weaker teams have more bravery to attack and actually do some harm to Guardiola’s men.

    But how many teams have come to Camp Nou and played simply naive… Really, that shouldn’t happen to such club like Real Madrid and manager, Jose Mourinho. I think he overrated his team before that game, while we all know that he rarely makes the same mistake twice.

    Surely now getting a goalless draw at Camp Nou is attracting more people interest (not to mention winning a game there) and the very first thing to think about should be getting a clean sheet for the away team.

    Great post anyway, just beggars believe how naive (or risky) are few managers in Primera while going to Barcelona.

  13. hwk permalink
    January 5, 2011 3:42 pm

    The way, Barcas defending at the fourth goal at Barca – Real was nice.
    The ball on the right wing (or Reals left), Barca in a 4-4-2 formation with Massi and Xavi in highest positions.
    Villa wide on the left (midfield), not important for defending but for the attack a few seconds later.
    Iniesta in the centre, infront of the two centre backs, Pedro on the right puting pressure on Madrid players, together with Busquets (centre-right) and Xavi (the right of the two “forwards”). Everything in a space of 15 to 20 meters, the back four 5 meters infront of the Barca box.
    Diarra has lost the ball (thanks to Xavi), Pedro back to Xavi, Busquets to Messi.
    Messi starts to dribble, and Villa starts his run on the left flank. The perfect 40 meter pass behind (or through) the defence. At this point, Villa has already covered half the way he has to run and is level with Reals right back Ramos. He and the ball meet at the edge of the box and the inevitable happens. By the way a great shot from Villa with his right foot, when a lot of strikers would use the left one.

    • hwk permalink
      January 5, 2011 3:48 pm

      “The way, Barcas defending at the fourth goal at Barca – Real was nice.”

      what a s*** first sentence from me. like a linguistical hiccup.

      The fifth goal against Real also was a counter attack over the right with the left wing man scoring at the end as well.

  14. hwk permalink
    January 5, 2011 5:45 pm

    Barca sometimes looks like a 3-5-2ish system to me.
    Three defenders – Busquets – the right back Alves on the right wing, Xavi, Iniesta and the deep Messi in the centre (Iniesta centre-left) – Villa as a wide striker on the left and Pedro the centre-right striker.
    Of course this ist fluid, Abidal moving forward etc.

    The centre backs against Barca have not to defend against classic forwards. It’s difficult, with Villa and Alves wide you could leave one free, or play five at the back. All Barca players are good in one-on-one situations, so if you mark both wide attackers, you have the two centre backs against Pedro and runners from midfield.
    Against Barca you have to defend against throught balls. Either you stay deep, or you put pressure on the opponent. Of course it’s impossible to avoid every pass behind the defence, but in this situation the centre backs have to be quick and push the attacker into wide positions. When Barca attacks over its right wing, the defending right back has to prevent the wide striker on his back to sneak into the box. You can do it with good positioning and speed, or with an offside trap. Both dangerous, of course, but with a good goal keeper (as libero/sweeper) possible.
    If you have a midfield and strikers able to pressing and fast defenders, I think, you have a chance with a higher defensive line (at least for 30 minutes and a 1-0 lead). Elsewhere sit deep, play on the counter and hope for the best.

    Question: How much is Messi as false nine comparable to Cruijff?

    • Aguilera permalink
      January 7, 2011 5:47 pm

      Messi is -as he’s improving his game- becoming each day more comparable to those great players such as Cruyff or Di Stéfano in the way that he’s not playing “merely” as a false nine but as Lionel Messi himself. What those guys finally did was to dictate the game, they started as strikers but ended up running the whole show by deepening their position (acting as midfielders) and still scoring lots of goals.

  15. January 8, 2011 8:44 pm

    Didn’t Maradona get a heavy dose of criticism for playing Messi in a withdrawn position so that La Pulga, stupidly according to many, had to virtually pick up the ball from the defense with miles in front of him until the opponent´s goal? What didn’t work for Argentina and seems to do it for Barcelona may have to do less with Maradona’s incompetence or Guardiola’s brilliance and more with Messi’s mental development plus the presence in his club of a few other extraordinary players around him.

    • hwk permalink
      January 9, 2011 11:13 am

      Is it that easy?
      Of course, Xavi and Co. are different players than the Argentinian midfielders. But with that in mind, Maradona should develop a different strategy.
      Barca is using Messi in a high developed environment (you could say that Xavi, Iniesta etc. make Messi a better player, and vice versa). Argentina didn’t have that environment, so they need differnt tactics for the whole team. Put Messi in a wide position or do something else and his ‘mental development’ may be different.

  16. Varun permalink
    January 12, 2011 10:07 am

    There is NO 100% full proof way to playing and winning against current Barca.

    If they are up to it and want to win, they will.

    Only if they are tired/not up to it totally, does another team has a chance, past 2 and a half years have shown only that.

    Also only Athletico Madrid has successfully beaten them more than once by attacking them.

  17. January 14, 2011 3:34 pm

    One small correction on Copenhagen. They pressed the hell out of us and were very physical and narrow in the approach. Helping matters for them were an out-of-form Pedro (who came on as a sub and almost scored the match winner), and a keeper who played out of his mind. I just watched that match again last night. If Messi doesn’t have two instances of uncharacteristically loose control, that’s a 3-1 win, as the better scoring chances were created by Barca. It’s why Copenhagen celebrated as if they’d won the Champions League, for a draw.

    Espanyol has had success against us recently for the same reasons: super aggressive, and physical. But because our defense is better this season, the same quality of match that might have gotten them a draw in seasons past, shipped 5 goals against them this year.

    To beat us, you need possession, and a lot of it. The more possession you have, the more chances you can generate. Simple as that. If we have our usual 60-70% numbers, you aren’t going to win, because the few chances that you have at scoring will require perfect execution. Hercules got very lucky, in that we played like we just didn’t care, while they played a perfect match. There was also much underestimation going on there. Even still, note the abundance of scoring chances that were flat-out missed.

    Mourinho knows how to set up a game plan to beat us, but it involves a) awakening a dormant volcano; b) a bus ride; c) having a striker push an open header wide of the post.

    We can lose, and will again this season. It’s inevitable. But it will take a hell of a performance by an opponent.

  18. Steve Haslam permalink
    January 26, 2011 1:14 pm

    When Barcelona played Arsenal off the park for the first half hour at the Emirates last season it was not due to any superiority in technique or skill levels but because they dominated possession which was due to dominating the transitions, i.e.quickly regaining possession by ceaseless pressing.It is physically impossible to press constantly for 90 minutes.If Arsenal’s pressing has improved then next month they have a chance.

  19. Vamsi permalink
    January 28, 2011 10:35 am

    I think the current Barca team is going through a purple phase with world class players in its team. Its difficult to play against a bunch of good players, but what Barca has is a bunch of extraordinary players, who seem to know each others play so well that they dare to pass the ball even when surrounded by 5 or more defenders without panicking. Right now they are playing as a great team, not a team with few great players. And to top it all all their players such as Xavi,Iniesta, Messi, Pedro etc are in superb form. They are not simply winning, they are decimating others. Just look at how many times they have score 5 goals this season. Only a dip in the form of some players may bring this team to the level of others. But till they are very difficult to be defeated.

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